It is beginning to be clear that the 2016 U.S. presidential race will see Donald Trump go head-to-head with Hillary Clinton. As these two contenders near the stage, Trump’s “America First” has started to ring differently, while Hillary’s “traditional” approach must be adjusted to cater to the financial needs of the American people.
By Seema Sirohi*
With the U.S. election process almost at the half-way mark, it looks likely that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will face each other as the two nominees in the final fight for the White House.
The world’s most powerful office couldn’t have two candidates more unlike each other – Trump is the outsider, an invader in the Republican Party while Clinton is the ultimate insider, an integral part of the Democratic Party establishment.
Tuesday’s primaries in five states in the northeast United States – Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Rhode Island and Connecticut – gave both candidates what seems like an insurmountable lead over their respective rivals.
Ted Cruz and John Kasich on the Republican side are looking like “also rans” against the Trump juggernaut just as the surprisingly good showing by Bernie Sanders against Clinton is now fading into the background. But they all plan to stay until the last primary in California.
Trump won all five states on Tuesday, taking his delegate count to 954 while Cruz, the hope of the Republican establishment, lags behind with 562. Kasich is even further behind with 153 delegates. A candidate must have 1,237 delegates to win the nomination, which will formally be announced at the Republican convention in Cleveland July 18-21.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s over,” Trump said after his sweep. There is fervent talk of a “contested” convention where Cruz and Kasich will make a bid if Trump doesn’t win the vote first time around. However, if Trump continues his winning streak over the next two months, it’s hard to imagine how the party officials could maneuver to deny him the crown.
On the other side, Clinton has garnered 2,151 delegates to Sanders’ 1,338 after clinching four of the five states in the latest primaries. She must have a total of 2,383 delegates to win her party’s nomination. The Democrats will hold their convention July 25-28 in Philadelphia.
Both presumptive nominees leave huge chunks of their parties that are dissatisfied with them but for different reasons. The Republican establishment and senior leadership loathe Trump for his loud, rude and unconventional views. He began his campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists” and criminals and proposing that all Muslims be banned from traveling to the United States for a certain time.
He has insulted women, disabled people and America’s allies. His worldview frightens diplomats around the world – he wants to break alliances, shred trade pacts and clamp down on U.S. companies that take jobs abroad. Trying to calm nerves all around, he let it be known that much of what he says is for “show.” Lately, he has been trying to act more “presidential,” trying to woo the Washington establishment with a foreign policy speech.
Clinton, on the other hand, is seen as too pro-establishment by many, but especially by Sanders supporters and the liberal wing of the party. She has moderated her positions from centre-right to more left of centre in response to Sanders’ surge but her long association with Wall Street is hard to hide. The young and liberal middle class Democrats have been cool to Clinton.
She has difficulty connecting even with women although she has emphasized the gender aspect and the historic chance for voters to elect America’s first woman president.
What’s clear in this election is the ferment in American society and the grassroots activism of voters. Disaffected Republican Americans, mostly lower middle class whites, have come out in large numbers for Trump rallies because he talks about bringing jobs back to America again. He responds to their anger with anger.
In a mirror image on the Democratic side, thousands have thronged Sanders’ rallies as he called for a “political revolution” and ripped into the “billionaire class, ” the big banks and stressed the need to fundamentally change things. He wants healthcare for all and free college education – a big reason for millennial anger is the debt of student loans that they walk under as they enter the job market.
Critics and experts have torn into both Trump and Sanders without much thought as to why the two outsiders have struck such a chord. Most television pundits, columnists and political reporters missed the anger simmering in American middle and lower classes, which the candidates tapped into. David Brooks, a respected conservative columnist for The New York Times, confessed as much, and apologized for being out of touch.
An article in the May issue of The Atlantic titled “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans” explains the real dynamic behind this unusual election. The author, Neal Gabler, reveals that nearly half the Americans won’t be able to come up with $400 for an emergency, such are their financial straits.
Gabler, a writer by profession, talks of his own shame and being down to the last $5, waiting for the next cheque. He calls it “financial impotence” and says most Americans won’t admit to it just as most men won’t admit to sexual impotence. He quotes a study done by professors from George Washington University, Oxford and Princeton that concluded that nearly half of American adults are “financially fragile” and “living very close to the financial edge.”
Against this background, Clinton’s considerable personal wealth and three million-dollar houses appear jarring to many Democrats who flocked to Sanders’ rallies. His campaign has survived on their small contributions – a significant pointer against Clinton’s huge campaign war chest supported by Wall Street and Hollywood donors.
Trump, on the other hand, has appealed to white Republican voters lower down the economic scale who have been left out of the new economy. So far they had bought the Republican argument that the market will take care of everyone as wealth trickles down from the multi-millionaires.
But income disparity has only widened over the past decade as wages have stagnated. More and more manufacturing jobs have been lost to China. People in this demographic are not easily able to retrain themselves to be part of the “innovation economy.” Trump has promised to bring manufacturing back and punish companies that export jobs.
Whether he can reverse decades of economic activity is questionable but for a majority of his supporters, he brings hope. In his first foreign policy speech, he called globalism “a false song.”
When he says “America First,” it rings differently in the backwaters of Tennessee and Kentucky than inside television studios where it is seen as a return to isolationism.
Clinton is a more “traditional” presidential candidate, promising to build on existing foreign and domestic policies, but adjusting them to suit today’s angry Americans who are less interested in saving the world and more in saving themselves.
About the author:
*Seema Sirohi is a Washington-based analyst and a frequent contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. Seema is also on Twitter, and her handle is @seemasirohi
This feature was written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.
 Gabler, Neal, ‘The secret shame of middle-class America’ The Atlantic, May 2016, <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/05/my-secret-shame/476415/